Saturday, March 15, 2008

March 15, 2008 - The Bucket List

Yesterday, Claire and I went to see the film, The Bucket List, at our local second-run movie theater. We don't get out to many movies in theaters, and this is one we'd meant to see on its first time around, but missed. We're glad the Beach Cinema in Bradley Beach gave us a second chance.

In case you haven't seen it or read about it, the film is about billionaire executive Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and blue-collar mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman). These two men are sharing a hospital room on a cancer ward when they both learn they have fewer than six months to live. They decide to stop behaving as though they are already dead. Bankrolled by Edward's substantial fortune, they check out of the hospital and live their lives to the fullest in the short time they have left. Living life to the fullest, for Edward, involves field trips like skydiving, visiting the Pyramids and getting a tattoo – macho activities that set the ol' adrenaline a-pumping. Carter's ideas are more modest and more values-driven – "witness something truly majestic," "help a complete stranger" – although he enthusiastically joins in on the race-car driving and touring the world on a private jet. All these are detailed on a scrap of paper from a yellow legal pad they call the "bucket list": the things they want to do before they kick the bucket, which they then scratch off the list, one by one.

It's a buddy movie for the cancer set. In any other circumstances, these two men would have been unlikely to become friends, due to differences in background, wealth, temperament and religious beliefs. Yet, they do become friends. The thing they have in common is cancer, and an awareness that their days are numbered.

The film's plot has been savaged by some critics for being contrived, but the fans evidently loved it. It was the number-one film in theaters for a time. Surely, a large part of its appeal is the chemistry between these two accomplished actors, but I think it also has to do with the way the film fearlessly takes on big, philosophical questions like the meaning of life, death and religious faith. The Bucket List doesn't supply a lot of answers, but the journey is a fine ride.

I was especially impressed by the role religious faith plays in the film. Edward, the over-the-hill hedonist, is a frank and rather prickly agnostic, declaring that the sum total of his belief is "We live, we die and the wheels on the bus go round and round." Carter gently declares his faith in God, although he admits it's not based on empirical evidence. That's what faith is all about, he tells his new friend. To him, faith is clearly not a truth distilled from empirical analysis. It's not something you deduce. It's something you do.

Does Edward get the message? The film hints that he does, leading him to a sort of personal redemption, through repairing some long-sundered family relationships (I won't say more than that, so as not to be a plot-spoiler).

I've never been as sick as the two men in the film, but the scenes of them learning of their cancer diagnosis did strike a chord. News like that sure does pick you up, turn you around and put you back down in a different place.

Everyone should see this film. It's a gem.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Thanks for the review. It's been on my 'to do' list for a couple of weeks. Now I'll move up toward the top, into the sooner-rather-than later category.

I've heard survivors say, "Cancer gave me courage." They are usually referring to finding courage to embrace life-enhancing changes or walk away from longstanding but life-sucking situations. For example, courage to sky dive (as pictured in your post) or commit to another person. Or courage to walk out of a movie or lecture that isn't worth the time. Courage to leave an damaging relationship or unsatisfying job.

Of course, cancer did not do any of that. As you've talked about in a some of your older posts, the new awareness of mortality and sense of numbering thy days pushes us to prioritize.

Cliche but true, in learning how to die, we learn how to live.
Cancer or other life-threatening event can be the wake up call, but it doesn't have to be. We've been blessed with the ability to picture what can only be seen in our minds, such as our end. And in using this gift, we can live most fully.
with hope,

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